Montenegro lifts immunity of pro-Russia MPs over coup plot
Montenegro's parliament voted Wednesday to strip two pro-Russian opposition MPs of their immunity over alleged involvement in a foiled coup last October, but a prosecutor ruled the pair would not be arrested.
The vote took place as several hundred people protested outside the assembly against the move, accusing the government of linking the opposition to what they said was a “fake coup.”
The rulers of the tiny country of 620,000 people hope to join NATO this year, but their pro-Western choice is opposed by the Moscow-oriented opposition.
Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic now has the go-ahead from parliament for the prosecution and detention of Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, both leading members of the opposition Democratic Front (DF).
The authorities have accused the alleged coup plotters, including DF leaders, of seeking to seize parliament and assassinate former premier Milo Djukanovic on the day of the October 16 elections.
Mandic, 52, and Knezevic, 36, were suspected of “creating a criminal organisation … and preparing an attempt on the constitutional order and security of Montenegro,” according to a statement on the parliament website.
All 42 deputies present in the 81-seat parliament voted to lift the immunity of Mandic and Knezevic.
However, in a surprise move immediately after the vote, the country’s top prosecutor issued a binding order that the two remain at large.
“In the concrete case the arrest should not be proposed,” prosecutor Ivica Stankovic said in a statement citing notably the “presumption of innocence”.
– ‘Dictatorial regime’ –
The ruling does not mean the probe against the pair is concluded but appears to be aimed at easing the growing political tensions in the Balkan country.
The DF, which has 18 MPs, is a fierce opponent of Montenegro’s bid to join NATO and has been behind violent protests against the proposed membership of the alliance.
DF leaders have repeatedly denied involvement in a coup plot, claiming the government set them up.
“Thieves! Thieves!” chanted protestors during the arrival of MPs from the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).
“These authorities came to power by force and will leave by force,” Scepan, a 34-year-old unemployed man, told AFP.
Mandic and Knezevic joined supporters in front of the assembly, where special police and metal fences were deployed.
“We decided to oppose the dictatorial regime and there is no force which could stop us … until we free Montenegro by democratic means,” Mandic told the crowd.
On Sunday, Mandic, whose driver was arrested last week on suspicion of involvement in the plot, warned the prosecutor that “clashes” could erupt if the DF leaders are charged.
“You should not arrest people, you will end up like Ceausescu!” Janko Vucinic, an opposition official, threatened Djukanovic during the gathering, which ended without incidents.
Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and summarily executed in 1989.
– Russia blamed –
Authorities have accused “Russian nationalists” of orchestrating the alleged plot, saying pro-Moscow Serbs were hired to carry it out.
Some 15 Serbs were arrested on the eve of the elections, while authorities have also launched a manhunt for two Russians who are on the run.
Djukanovic, a veteran politician who led Montenegro both as prime minister and president for almost 25 years, quit the government after the polls, despite his party’s victory.
His close ally and new premier Dusko Markovic has confirmed Montenegro’s intention of joining NATO this year.
Russia has branded the idea “a provocation”.
If Podgorica joins the alliance, NATO will reinforce its presence in the Balkans as Greece, Croatia and Albania are already members.